Top Games of the 2013 NFL Season

19 04 2013

 

Guest writer: Josh McSwain

 

15. Minnesota at Green Bay — Week 12
Good old fashioned rivalry game, but the reason it makes the list is because Greg Jennings will make his return to Lambeau Field. They booed Brett Favre when he returned in purple. Jennings will get booed for sure.

14. Carolina at San Francisco — Week 10
This game features two of the most dynamic dual threat QBs in the game. Cam Newton has been brilliant at times and not shaky at others through his first two years, he must become more consistent to get Carolina into the playoffs. Who better to see him against than a top defense? Colin Kaepernick is out to prove last year was no fluke and that he’s the man in San Francisco.

13. Kansas City at Philadelphia — Week 3
Pretty simple on this one. Andy Reid returns to Philadelphia after fourteen years and numerous playoff appearances. We also will get to see Chip Kelly‘s new offense.

12. Washington at Minnesota — Week 10
Simple star power here- RG3 will be healthy by this time (assuming he doesn’t get hurt again), and Adrian Peterson for Minnesota. Both of those guys have suffered recent ACL injuries. ACL bowl?

11. Denver at New York Giants — Week 2
Pretty simple here- Manning Bowl III.

10. Atlanta at San Francisco — Week 16
Rematch of the NFC title game, on Monday night in a game that could be crucial in determining playoff position.

9. Green Bay at Detroit — Week 13
How does Detroit get up here? Well, it is a Thanksgiving game, and the Lions have this guy, who’s kind of a big deal. I also think Detroit will be much better this coming season after having a down year in 2012.

8. Dallas at New York Giants — Week 12
This could be a pivotal game in the NFC east. Not to mention these two have developed a pretty intense rivalry in recent years, and the Romo-Eli comparisons will never end.

7. New Orleans at New England — Week 6
If you like passing offense, this one is for you. Two bad secondaries and two loaded passing attacks. Kicker here- Tom Brady could tie Drew Brees‘ record of 54 straight games with a TD pass if he throws one in this one (assuming he throws TDs in each game until this one).

6. Houston at Baltimore — Week 3
Ed Reed coming back to Baltimore will be the headline in this one. But these two teams are powers in the AFC and this game could have early playoff implications.

5. Atlanta at New Orleans — Week 1
The rivalry in the Deep South should be enough to get it on this list. But think about the rest this game has to offer. It’ll be Steven Jackson‘s first game in a Falcons uniform. It’ll be Sean Payton‘s first game back from suspension and Rob Ryan‘s first chance to trot out his reconstructed defense.

4. Denver at New England — Week 12
Peyton vs. Brady again, and now Wes Welker is going to be catching passes from the former instead of the latter. Not much needs to be said.

3. San Francisco at Seattle — Week 2
Forget the big markets on the East Coast, these two staged the signing war of the offseason. Seattle added Percy Harvin, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Antoine Winfield, among others. The 49ers countered with Anquan Boldin, Glenn Dorsey and Nnamdi Asomugha among others. The 49ers also likely remember the beatdown they took in Seattle late last season. Early chance for some revenge.

2. Baltimore at Denver — Week 1
I don’t care that the Ravens lost a ton of guys. This is the season opener, a rematch of one of the best playoff games ever, and a chance for the Ravens to show that they will still be a contender this season. This would be number one, except for…

1. Denver at Indianapolis — Week 7
The Sheriff goes back to the house that he built. I don’t think there will ever be a warmer reception than the one he will get on that day. For the first time Peyton will get to play against the guy who Indianapolis chose over him in the 2012 offseason.

 

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Top 10 Things to Take Away From Super Bowl XLVII

5 02 2013

 

 

 

 

 

Whether you were watching for the commercials, the halftime show or simply the football game, Super Bowl XLVII gave its viewers a night to remember.

The Baltimore Ravens didn’t allow the San Francisco 49ers to have a second straight double-digit second half come back as they claimed a riveting 34-31 victory at the Superdome to collect their second championship this millennium.

Now that the dust has settled and everyone has recovered from the dreaded day of work after, what are the top 10 things to take away from this sporting event?

 

1. Joe Flacco will have the quickest rise in terms of quarterback rankings

Bazooka Joe just shot himself up to elite status faster than Tony Romo moves in and out of this group. Prior to this season, NFL guru John Clayton listed Flacco as the 13th best starting quarterback in the league – one spot away from being ranked in the “Chad Pennington Division.” That’s bad. But Sunday night, in a game in which his defense gave up a whopping 468 total yards, Flacco completed 22 of his 33 passes while throwing for three touchdowns. To add to his newly found greatness, Flacco went through the entire postseason with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. Only Hall of Fame QB Joe Montana had that many touchdowns without any interceptions in the playoffs. It’s time to give credit where credit is due.

2. Super Bowl commercials are overhyped

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel as though the bar has been raised too high for Super Bowl commercials.  It has gotten to the point where there are now expectations that maybe one or two commercials are able to reach each year. The rest? Overhyped. It is as if companies try so hard to be the “clever” or “different” one that the audience reacts by scratching their head or thinking about a commercial they saw last week that should have been used for this event.

3. Colin Kaepernick is the new and improved RGIII

Just as RGIII captured the hearts of NFL fans across the nation at the beginning of the season, Kaepernick did the same, only on a bigger stage and during a playoff run to the Super Bowl. Oh yeah, and he’s better. Even though Flacco is the quarterback that has the rep of having a big arm, Kaepernick’s average of 10.8 yards per pass showed off his powerful arm and his powerful impact on this team. Even though Alex Smith did a efficient job at the QB position, Kaepernick brings electricity to the field. However, he’s not simply a showman; he’s a winner. And he has the resolve of a veteran leader, coming back time and time again from any deficit. This kid has “it” as ESPN likes to say and should now be considered the best of the plethora of young quarterbacks that are the future of this league.

4. Gardiner’s Furniture Store has a love-hate relationship with Jacoby Jones

This Baltimore-area furniture store probably has many members that were ecstatic to see their team win the Super Bowl. Yet, I believe it may be a bittersweet ecstatic. Because Jacoby Jones returned the opening of the second-half kickoff for a touchdown, the store’s manager will give away $600,000 worth of furniture due to a pre-game “promotion” if you can call it that. Now, anything that was sold from January 31 to February 3 is free. FREE. Even though everything being said from this company is related to how they’re so happy, I bet the customers from last week may be a little happier than the $600,000-less furniture store.

5. San Francisco is the new best sports town for a fan

Talk about #winning. The San Fransisco Giants won the World Series. The Stanford Cardinal won the Rose Bowl. The 49ers just went to the Super Bowl. And in the near future, the sprouting Golden State Warriors, who have extremely loyal fans, plan to move across the bay and play in none other than San Francisco. Watch out Boston, Los Angeles and New York, there’s a new place to bandwagon.

 

6. Beyoncé proved all her doubters wrong

Now, I know most of you are not reading this to get your daily dose of pop culture. But I would just like to say that Beyoncé finally put on a halftime show worth watching. For those that critiqued her for lip-synching at the Presidential Inauguration, Beyoncé’s heavy breathing that went along with her powerful singing and perfectly choreographed dancing showed her showmanship that few can replicate. She is truly an entertainer.

7. Michael Crabtree does not have the clutch gene he had at Texas Tech

Crabtree collected 109 receiving yards, but only 24 of them came in the 4th quarter and those came on a single catch. He was targeted on the 49ers final three possessions, catching none of those passes. On the last attempt on fourth down, if Crabtree had not initiated the contact with Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith, he might have had a chance to go up and grab the game-winning touchdown.

8. We shouldn’t think this is the last Harbowl

In the next five years, we will see another Super Bowl matchup between the 49ers and Ravens. Why? Jim and John. These two Harbaugh brothers have shown that this league is different than the NBA and values coaches just as much as superstars. Neither of these teams would have been able to make it to the Super Bowl without their head coach. The Harbaughs have a gift to coach football at the highest level and perform at the highest level. They simply find a way to win. Jim is the third NFL coach since the 1970 merger to take his team to division titles in his first two seasons and the fifth to record two straight 10-win seasons after a losing record the previous season. John is the only coach to take his team to three straight conference games in his first five seasons and to win a playoff game in this same time period. I’d say these brothers may have to plan for a few more awkward dinners in the future.

9. We may never know why the bizarre power outage took place…

Even though Superdome officials were worried about a power outage before the game even started, it is still unknown what caused the 34-minute blackout at the stadium. Did San Francisco do this in order to shift the momentum of the game? Was there too much demand for power? Did Gregg Williams put a bounty on these lights? Was Beyoncé too electrifying?  Did Bane secretly sneak into New Orleans?

10. Ray Lewis will be remembered as an enigma

Now that his NFL career has come to a close, what will be Ray Lewis’ lasting image? To be honest, I have no idea. This man has had a life nothing short of bizarre. Some will never be able to forgive and forget about the fact that he may be a cold-blooded murderer that paid a family millions of dollars in order to keep himself out of prison. Some solely focus on his forceful play on the field and the fact that he provided the Ravens with some of the best leadership a sports team could ask for. Some will question whether or not he took illegal substances to cheat the system and become unnaturally bigger and stronger than his competition. Some look at the change he has made since his alleged double murder and how he has begun to follow Christ and give all the glory to him. Some see a champion. However you may look at him, there is no doubt a void will be left in the NFL once Ray Lewis leaves the sport he loves behind.

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Super Bowl XLVII Preview

27 01 2013

 

Co-writer: Josh McSwain

 

Why the Ravens will win:

They have the intangibles on their side – Ray Lewis’ emotional final season in Baltimore has lifted the performance of this whole team. This could be Ed Reed’s final year too. Joe Flacco will stay, still keeping them at high level, but these Hall of Fame defenders that are on their D have this game, and that’s it. Like Eminem said in Lose Yourself, “you only get one shot, do not miss your chance”. Furthermore, I think they already had that “mark of a champion” moment against Denver. Two special teams TDs given up, but they weathered the storm, and had a spectacular play at the end of regulation with Flacco’s mile high heave. They have more momentum than a boulder rolling down a hill. You know this team believes, and they know it’s now or never. This team looks a lot like the Giants and Packers during their title runs of the last two years. On the other hand, the 49ers may not have that same sence of urgency because they will be contending for championships for the next few years.

They are healthy – Getting the offensive line back in order with the return of Bryant McKinnie was paramount. Michael Oher is not a good left tackle since he is a natural right tackle and is much better at run blocking than pass blocking. This also allowed Kelechi Osemele to move back to guard, his natural position. Of course on defense, getting Ray Ray back has made a world of difference, as we all knew it would. This could be the advantage over the 49ers, who have both their Smiths banged up (Justin with his triceps and Aldon with his shoulder – but I can’t imagine either of them not playing).

Bazooka Joe is on fire right now – He has not thrown an interception this postseason, while tossing 8 TDs. If he continues to not turn the ball over in the Super Bowl, the Ravens will have a very good shot at winning.

They have a distinct advantage in the kicking game – Justin Tucker only missed three FGs all season. David Akers has missed fourteen, including one last week. If this game comes down to a kick, it clearly favors Baltimore.

 

Why the 49ers will win:

Taking after their head coach, this team is as composed as any team I have ever seen – opening drive pick six against Green Bay? No problem. Down 17-0 in the Georgia Dome to the best team in the NFC? No problem. Colin Kaepernick has shown an incredible amount of confidence all year and has played almost flawlessly in the playoffs.

They can impose their will on other team’s defenses – ordinarily teams would freak out and throw the ball every play down 17. Not this Harbaugh team. Their bread and butter is mashing their opponents up front, and they did just that and climbed back into the game. Frank Gore and LaMichael James are one of the best thunder-lightning combinations I’ve seen in a while, comparable with the Fred Taylor and MJD combo for the Jaguars back in 2007. After those two, you have to worry about Kaepernick. Mobile QBs have had some success against Baltimore. Andrew Luck had an 18 yard run against them in the Wild Card round and RG3 averaged almost five yards per carry against them in the regular season. Of course, the Ravens are much stingier up front than the Packers or Falcons. Winning at the point of attack is paramount for the 49ers because then they can use some of their creative offensive plays.

Jim Harbaugh is one of the best at making in-game adjustments – They looked hopelessly lost in the first quarter against Matt Ryan and the dynamic passing attack of the Falcons. Harbaugh then made adjustments in the second half, got pressure on Matt Ryan and kept the receivers from making big plays like they did in the first half.

Smith, Boldin and Pitta are not the game breakers they faced last week – make no mistake, these guys are no slouches, but they aren’t Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. I think the 49ers secondary will play closer to the standard we have come to expect from them. But the DL also has to get pressure on Flacco, because Flacco can make the throws if he gets time. But last week, the Falcons receivers easily won their matchups almost every time in the first half. That will not happen again.

 

 

 

Guy who needs to have a big game:

Ray Rice Ray Rice #27 of the Baltimore Ravens runs the ball in the first half against Ryan Pickett #79 of the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on December 7, 2009 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.Ravens =  Ray Rice. He ran the ball very effectively against the Broncos, who are not as stout up front, for 131 yards on 30 carries. He also averaged 4.5 yards per carry in limited duty against the Colts due to fumbles. He needs to avoid putting the ball on the ground, be a productive runner and be a threat out of the backfield for the Ravens to pull out this victory. But running against the 49ers front line is tough sledding. Ask the Falcons, who ran very effectively against the Seahawks. Rice in the postseason has 4 catches for 69 yards in the postseason, with one of them being a 47 yarder against the Colts. However the Ravens plan to use him against the 49ers, he must be effective. Flacco can’t win this by himself.

49ers =  Dashon Goldson. I just have a feeling that he will make a play one way or another that will decide the outcome of this game. My guess is he will give a lot of help over the top on Torrey Smith to Carlos Rogers. He needs to avoid channelling his inner Rahim Moore and allowing either of the Ravens’ speedy receivers, Jones or Smith, to get open deep. Obviously Flacco can get them the ball with that rocket of an arm. On the flip side, he could have a crucial pass breakup or interception that swings momentum in favor of his 49ers. Goldson can be the one to turn Flacco’s tendency to chunk the ball downfield into the 49er’s favor.

 

 

 


Conclusion: I wish both teams could win. Both have had “statement” playoff wins thus far. Both deserve it. Maybe it’ll go into four overtimes and then Goodell will just say “enough” and pronounce them co-champions… not. Last season, I was 100 percent sure the Giants would win. Never wavered one bit. This year, not so much. I’m almost 50-50 on this game. Truly the smallest of factors will decide this game. I think at the forefront of those deciding factors is penalties. Ironically, these two teams are among the most heavily penalized in the league. I think the two week layoff favors the 49ers. The Ravens are jacked up right now, and I think they would be better served getting back on the football field this Sunday. But that is not the case. I think some of their momentum will be taken away. While Flacco has received praise for his playoff performance that he rightfully has deserved, he has not been incredibly accurate during the playoffs. He has completed just 51 of 93 passes, for a completion percentage under 55. He will have to string a lot of completions together on multiple drives to put his team in a position to win. Against arguably the best defense in the league, and one of the best since the 2000 Ravens, I’m not sure I see that happening.

Here is how I see the game playing out: very tight game for the first three quarters, great defense, might even be a little dull. Entering the 4th quarter, the 49ers will have a 17-16 lead, Joe Flacco
will lead them down the field for a field goal to give them a 19-17 lead with roughly ten minutes to 
go. But Colin Kaepernick shows once and for all why Harbaugh drafted him so highly, throwing a touchdown pass to Randy Moss (who will be the 49ers secret weapon in this game) to give the 49ers a 24-19 lead with just over four minutes remaining. Flacco has one last chance to lead the Ravens back, but the 49ers D puts them away, just as they have put teams away all season to preserve the gritty five-point win.

 

MVP: Colin Kaepernick

It should be noted: In 2010, I picked Green Bay over Philadelphia, then picked against them the rest of the playoffs. I picked Baltimore in the Wild Card round, picked against them the last two weeks. They say history repeats itself. We shall see if it does this time.

 

 

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Torrey Smith: A True Warrior

24 09 2012

By taking down the New England Patriots on a last second field goal to take a 31-30 victory, the Baltimore Ravens avenged a very tough 2012 AFC Championship game in which Billy Cundiff missed an easy 32-yard field goal, leading to another successful Ravens season cut short before the Super Bowl. The Baltimore Ravens extended their 12-game home winning streak along with 20 of the last 21 games. The Baltimore Ravens finally picked up their first win in seven tries against the Tom Brady led Patriots.

But this wasn’t about the Baltimore Ravens (or the abysmal replacement refs). This was about the resolve and pure strength of not the wide reciever Torrey Smith but the man Torrey Smith.

It was revealed to Smith literally hours before this ever so important Sunday Night Football game that his 19-year-old brother, Tevin, had died from a motorcycle accident. I can’t even comprehend the emotional roller coaster of losing someone in my direct family and then finding the fortitude to go on to play a sport – and no one expected as much from Smith, as he could have skipped this game with little to no criticism.

But this wasn’t an option for the man. He felt as though he had a commitment to both his families.

“I have my family, and I have you as my family,” Smith told his teammates after the game. “I couldn’t have done it without you guys.”

When the game began, the crowd gave a moment of silence for Tevin. Even from the perspective of a television viewer, you could literally feel the emotion in the stadium. There was more to this night than football.

If playing in the game wasn’t enough, Smith played a game that would finish as the best of his NFL career. After falling behind 13-0 early on in the first quarter, Smith kicked off their comeback with a pretty 25-yard touchdown down the sideline. Once crunch time officially began in the fourth quarter, Smith collected another touchdown, this time from five yards away to pull the Ravens in field goal range of a victory. By the time Justin Tucker knocked in a 27-yard field goal over one of the uprights, Smith had collected six catches, 127 yards and the respect of the entire nation.

It is true that the Ravens would not have won this game without Smith. How do athletes in tough situations often find ways to excel? It’s something that can’t be explained. His performance will make many journalists’ jobs easier and also make the football audience remember why the backstories of sports are what makes them so interesting to follow. But that’s not what Sunday night was about.

Sunday night was about the epitome of perseverance. The Dictionary.com definition is as such, “steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc., especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.” Smith played in this game despite the fact that he not only lost his younger brother but lost someone he had become a father figure toward because of his mother’s dedication to her job and school. His tweet that this death is “the hardest thing ever” shows the pain Smith must have been feeling in his chest throughout the night. But he felt as though he had a job to do and wouldn’t let this seemingly insurmountable emotional obstacle get in the way of playing the sport of football. Of persevering.

Luckily, he had the support and love from the Ravens organization. From the team’s chapel service, to the time to open up and cry in the locker room, to the team meal in which Smith received multiple pats on the back, they helped him step by step from the moment they found out about this tragedy.

“My teammates, I love them to death and they helped me get through this,” he said.

In the end, though, he had to make the decision to play in this football game. Not one person in his Baltimore community expected him to go out there and run his routes. Not one person wanted him to force his way onto the field if he didn’t feel up for it.

But he did, and that’s what makes this story so special. Smith showed the nation that even on our toughest day, when we think all the silver linings have disappeared and grieving is the only solution, it is possible to persevere. Smith showed the nation what it means to be a true warrior.

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NFL Preview 2012: AFC

5 09 2012

 

 

 

Co-writer: Josh McSwain

 

AFC east

1. New England Patriots (12-4)

Offense — (A).      With a great line and a bevy of offensive weapons, they are primed to put up a lot of points again. The question remains in the backfield though. Who will be the starter a running back? Stevan Ridley has impressed the most so far, but fellow 2011 draft pick Shane Vereen and the versatile Danny Woodhead will also contribute. Brandon Lloyd will also be an x-factor for them. Can he be the guy that stretches the field for them? No matter what roles are taken on by which players, this will surely be another dazzling year for Tom Brady.

Defense — (B-).     They got aggressive in the draft, trading up for Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower. With Vince Wilfork, Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and a host of others up front, such as Trevor Scott and Kyle Love, they should be passable up front. The secondary is the question mark. They allowed Joe Flacco to look like an All-Pro quarterback in the AFC title game, and once again allowed Eli Manning to beat them. With the names they have back there – Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington – they should have played better. With a much lighter schedule and only one All-Pro starting quarterback going up against them, we’ll see if a this new season provides a boost.

Special teams — (A-).      Stephen Gostowski is a solid kicker, and Zoltan Mesko has been respectable ever since breaking the starting lineup 2 years ago. Woodhead is a decent return man, but I imagine Jeff Demps will be taking over in that department this season.

 

2. Buffalo Bills (9-7)

Offense — (C+).      Kind of a work in progress. But with Fred Jackson carrying the load in the backfield, they will be fine. They really missed him after he got hurt last season. Ryan Fitzpatrick is the big question mark. He was Dr. Jekyll during the first part of last season and Mr. Hyde at the end. Injuries to the line and receivers certainly played their part in that though. As long as he takes care of the football, they should be just fine. The line has improved, and they got a steal with Cordy Glenn in the second round. He’s going to be a fine player.

Defense — (A-).      They were awful last year, I realize. But with Kyle Williams returning from injury, they have a front that can rival any in the league. Mario Williams will command attention. You can only double one of them. After those two, you have to deal with Marcel Dareus. And when you think you’re done, you have to deal with 10-sack man Mark Anderson. At linebacker, they have a solid core with Nick Barnett, Kelvin Sheppard and Arthur Moats, with depth with veteran Kirk Morrison. Adding Stephon Gilmore to the secondary will help. Aaron Williams and Gilmore will form a good duo for years, and Jarius Byrd and George Wilson are solid at safety.

Special teams — (A).      Brian Moorman is a very good punter, still as good as ever, and Rian Lindell is still a solid kicker. Leodis McKelvin averaged almost 20 yards per punt return, and Justin Rogers averaged almost 30 per kick return.

 

3. Miami Dolphins (6-10)

Offense — (C+).      Ryan Tannehill is raw and ordinarily would not be ready for the NFL, but playing in his college coach’s system will certainly decrease the learning curve, though it will still be there. It also doesn’t help that his receivers are absolutely awful. Davone Bess, their slot guy is their best receiver. Brian Hartline, Roberto Wallace, Legedu Naanee? They leave a lot to be desired. By the end of the year B.J. Cunningham and Jeff Fuller, Tannehill’s college teammate could be starting. The only constants on their offense are Jake Long and Reggie Bush. Mike Pouncey and Jonathan Martin are both young linemen that could be pretty good.

Defense — (A-).      They have a very good unit here. Paul Soliai anchors a 4-3 line that also features Cameron Wake, Randy Starks and Jared Odrick. Karlos Dansby is a very good ILB, and Kevin Burnett and Koa Misi are a solid group of LBs. Trading Vontae Davis will hurt their secondary, but they do have a good group back there still with Sean Smith, Richard Marshall, Nolan Carroll at the nickel, Reshad Jones and Chris Clemons at safety.

Special teams — (A-).      Dan Carpenter has been up and down in his 3 NFL seasons, kicking with a 89% accuracy rate in 2009, regressing to 73% in 2010 and improving back to 85% last season. Brandon Fields is one of the best punters in the league. Rookies Marcus Thigpen and Lamar Miller will fight it out for the kicker returner spot, and Davone Bess anchors the punt returner duties.

 

4. New York Jets (5-11)

Offense — (D).      They have a recipe for disaster. Sanchez is a competent but not confident QB, and Tebow is an unorthodox quarterback that is going to be hemmed into a box when he takes over the starting job (you know he will unless Sanchez lights it up). It honestly wouldn’t surprise me if McElroy finished the season, and wouldn’t surprise me if he did well. But they have lots of other issues than the QB spot. Shonn Greene has not been anything spectacular at running back, their WRs are very lackluster, Santonio Holmes, Stephen Hill and whomever else they have at WR won’t scare anybody. They have to hope Dustin Keller has a pro bowl caliber year. Right Tackle is another problem. The rest of the line is solid with Ferguson, Mangold, Moore and Slauson. But they have to find a starter out of Vladimir DuCasse, who though listed at guard could slide over, ex 2nd overall pick Jason Smith who failed epically in St Louis, Austin Howard and Paul Cornick.

Defense — (A-).      They have always been very good and hard-nosed on this side of the ball. Starters Mike Devito, Muhammed Wilkerson and Quentin Coples, their first round pick, will wreak havoc, and Sione Pouha is a solid anchor at NT. They need to find an edge rusher. Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas are not that guy. But David Harris and Bart Scott are a good duo. Their secondary is good, with Revis Island leading the way. But the injury prone LaRon Landry will be a liability, particularly in coverage. Yeremiah Bell and Antonio Cromartie are both solid players back there.

Special teams — (C).      Who will be the kicker? Nick Folk? After you brought in Josh Brown? What does that say about Folk? TJ Conely is a serviceable punter, and they do have some spark in the return game with Joe McKnight and Jeremy Kerley.

 

 

AFC west

1. San Diego Chargers (10-6)

Offense — (B+).      Rivers had a down year last year, but he will bounce back this season. Vincent Jackson is gone, but he is very overrated. He’s great one week and terrible the next. Gates needs to stay healthy, and hopefully for them, Robert Meachem will be more consistent than Jackson. But Rivers is a superstar QB who has shown he can play at a high level no matter who is around him. Ryan Mathews needs to step up though. He finally passed 1000 rushing yards last season, but he needs to take the next step forward. After losing Marcus McNeill and Kris Dielman, they will need to work out the kinks of their offensive line, but they can get those worked out.

Defense — (B).      They regressed under Greg Manusky last season, but under the leadership of John Pagano, they should rebound. They need to find a duo of rushers. Shaun Phillips, Larry English, first round pick Melvin Ingram and Antwan Barnes are all vying for that spot. Barnes had 11 sacks last season. Phillips had 11 in 2010. They need to all get on the same page to have success. Jammer is a solid corner, but is getting old. Cason is young but has broken in well. Weddle is a great safety. Is Atari Bigby the answer beside him? We’ll see.

Special teams — (B).      Kaeding is the most Jekyll and Hyde kicker in the league, being great in the regular season and terrible in the playoffs. Mike Scfries is a phenomenal punter. Eddie Royal will spice up the return game, and Richard Goodman will compete for returns as well.

 

2. Denver Broncos (8-8)

Offense — (B+).      Though Manning will turn their passing game upside down and make the true talent of their receivers come out, he will hinder the run game, which was tops in the league last season. Willis McGahee also figures to not have as good of a year. The offensive line will have to adjust from all the run blocking to a lot of pass blocking. The level of rust Manning has will be the ultimate determinant of how well this season goes.

Defense — (C).      They kept them in a lot of games last season. But can Tebow’s energy boost that made them play over their heads last season be preserved this season? They have a great pass rush with Ayers, Dumervil and Miller, but after that they have a primordial secondary and weak interior.

Special teams — (B).      Prater is a good kicker, and Britton Colquitt is a solid punter who will be very good in time, particularly in the thin air in Denver.

 

3. Kansas City Chiefs (8-8)

Offense — (C).      Even with Jamaal Charles coming back, they still have issues on this side of the ball. First, Matt Cassel. He is not and never will be an NFL starter. He is merely a good backup who looked good in the Pats system the two years he was in it. They thank the Lord every day they have Dwayne Bowe, a top 5 NFL receiver. That guy is a monster. They need Baldwin to step up and be a #2 guy. Tony Moeaki returns from injury, which will also help at least some. Peyton Hillis brings a good bruising back to complement Charles, and they will carry the ball a lot this season.

Defense — (A-).      They have a chance to be an excellent unit. They need more out of Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey though. But Tamba Hali is great. Derrick Johnson is great. Brandon Flowers and Eric Berry lead a good secondary. But losing Brandon Carr will hurt. Kendrick Lewis stepped up last season when given the chance, and they need him to continue this season.

Special teams — (B+).      Ryan Succop is a serviceable kicker. Dustin Colquitt is a fine punter. Dexter McCluster and Javier Arenas are both threats to take the ball back all the way every time they touch it.

 

4. Oakland Raiders (7-9)

Offense — (B-).      Carson Palmer is a gunslinger. He resembles a lesser form of Brett Favre… now you have the picture. He will throw for a lot of TDs, may even lead the AFC in TDs (yeah, I said it). But he may also lead it in ints, and he will accumulate seemingly good stats because of the fact their defense is so bad and he will have to throw a lot. If McFadden gets hurt, then he will have to throw even more. If McFadden stays healthy, they could have one of the most lethal offenses in the league. But without Michael Bush, if he goes down they don’t have a reliable backup.

Defense — (D).      They are simply awful. They have too much talent to have been as bad as they have over the last few seasons. Tyvon Branch is good at safety, but Michael Huff has not lived up to his draft spot, and their corners are a big question mark. LBs are another concern, and while the DL can rush the passer, they do need to stop the run better.

Special teams — (A).      They have the best punter in the AFC, if not the league, and the kicker with the strongest leg. They set the standard. Whether they will get the chance to play a part toward winning football is still to be determined.

 

 

AFC north

1. Baltimore Ravens (11-5)

Offense — (B).      Joe Flacco proved he can be counted on to win in the playoffs last season. Ray Rice is a great back. But they have below average receivers and OL. Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta are both coming into their own right now at TE. Unfortunately, they are average at best at the WR position. Boldin has struggled to stay healthy, and Torrey Smith was kind of a feast or famine player last season. The offensive line has also been nothing spectacular. They used to have one of the best in the league, but now Ben Grubbs is gone, Birk is old, and Oher has played nothing close to his level of fame. Yanda is great at RG, and Bryant McKinnie has shown he has a little left, but how much will he have this season?

Defense — (A).      Even without Suggs, they have a loaded unit. Ngata is the scariest DL in the league, and Terrance Cody and Pernell McPhee are both excellent. Ray Lewis is still solid, Courtney Upshaw was a steal in the second round, Jameel McClain is solid, and Paul Kruger is a solid fill in who will move back to a situational rusher when Suggs comes back. Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb are a great duo of corners, and Ed Reed is still a ball hawk, even though he is declining. Bernard Pollard is a good run defending safety.

Special teams — (B).      Justin Tucker, the rookie from Texas who has shown off an impressively strong leg in the preseason. Sam Koch is one of the most underrated punters in the league, never gets much credit because of Shane Lechler’s stranglehold on the AFC pro bowl spot.

 

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)

Offense — (B+).      They have a one of a kind QB that can make plays that no other QB in the NFL can. He is the toughest QB in the league, and has played through all kinds of injuries. With Mike Wallace, the league’s premiere deep threat and up and coming star Antonio Brown in the fold, as well as the solid handed Heath Miller. Finding a runner will be one concern. Can Isaac Redman carry the load? Will Jonathan Dwyer be able to contribute? Chris Rainey has looked good so far, and will certainly make some plays this season. Getting Mendenhall back for the stretch run will certainly help them. Having David DeCastro would have made their offensive line a lot better, but unfortunately they have lost him for what we presume is for the year. But, as they have proven in the past, they can win without a great offensive line.

Defense — (A-).      They have undergone a lot of change this offseason, but they are still the Steelers. No matter who is out there, they put out a successful unit. James Harrison needs to come back quickly though. He is a guy who absolutely scares the crap out of people. He and Lamarr Woodley are both players to fear. With James Farrior being released this offseason, Larry Foote slides into the starting lineup. He is on the tail end of his career, but if they can get any sort of leadership out of him he has done his job. Timmons and the outside guys are the playmakers. On the line, Hampton and Keisel are certainly getting up there in age, while Ziggy Hood is only 25. Cameron Heyward provides good depth. Troy Polamalu is still one of the ultimate playmakers on the defensive side of the ball in the league. He is the MVP of the defense. When he is out due to injury, they aren’t the same. Ryan Clark is serviceable at FS, and Ike Taylor is still solid. Keenan Lewis has a lot on his plate on the other side, and should get plenty of attention this season.

Special teams — (C).      The Achilles heel of this team if there is one. Shaun Suisham has always been a very inconsistent kicker, and they cleaned house at punter, going with undrafted rookie Drew Butler. Emmanuel Sanders held the return duties last year, but Rainey will certainly push him for those jobs. I expect him to take them at some point.

 

3. Cincinnati Bengals (5-11)

Offense — (C).      I think they overachieved last season. Andy Dalton has a very low ceiling at QB, and was the most NFL ready QB in his class of QBs. For all those who expect huge things out of him, they will be disappointed. A.J. Green is a phenomenal receiver, but they need a #2 guy. They drafted Mohammed Sanu for that (twice, by some estimates). Jermaine Gresham is a fine tight end, arguably one of the ten best in the league. But they went 9-7 with one of the easiest schedules in the league last season. I think they will get knocked back to reality this season.

Defense — (B).      A solid unit under Mike Zimmer, they have been one of the best in the league in the 2009 and 2011 seasons. They were roasted by injuries in 2010. They have a who’s who of corners with Leon Hall, Adam Jones, Nate Clements, Jason Allen, Terence Newman and first round pick Dre Kirkpatrick. Geno Atkins and Domata Peko are one of the better DT duos in the league. Those are the two strongest points of the unit.

Special teams — (C+).      Mike Nugent comes back from injury at kicker, and Cincinnati Bearcat turned Bengal Kevin Huber is a serviceable punter. Brandon Tate is not as spectacular as others, but he can get it done returning the ball.

 

4. Cleveland Browns (3-13)

Offense — (D).      Brandon Weeden is a gunslinger at QB, and because Cleveland will be behind a lot this season, he will rack up the interceptions this season. Unfortunately, with only Greg Little, Mohammed Massaquoi and others at WR, the TDs don’t figure to come easily. Trent Richardson was a wasted pick at #3. He may end up being good someday, but they could have picked up a good runner later. They could have had Justin Blackmon at #3, or traded down for more picks, because they have a lot of holes.

Defense — (B).      One of the more well coached units in the league under Dick Jauron. Joe Haden, DTs Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin, D’Qwell Jackson are the best players on the unit. Jabaal Sheard and Frostee Rucker are two decent rushers off the edge, but won’t give offensive coordinators sleepless nights. But give Sheard time and he could be great. T.J. Ward is a big hitter at safety, and newcomer Eric Haag will be good.

Special teams — (C).      Phil Dawson is not what he used to be, missing 10 kicks over the last two seasons. Reggie Hodges has been a journeyman punter, and missed all of last season with injury. Don’t expect much from him. Josh Cribbs – he used to be a big factor in the return game, but not as much anymore. He hasn’t returned a kickoff for a TD since 2009 and only one punt return for a TD in the last two years. Returners never seem to be great for that long.

 

 

AFC south

1. Houston Texans (12-4)

Offense — (A-).      Their only real weaknesses are a lack of a #2 WR, which is a problem because of the fragility of Andre Johnson, and the health of Matt Schaub. Can they really depend on him to lead them to a title? He has always been solid when healthy, but he has not played in a playoff game his whole career. Assuming they make it back to the playoffs and he can stay healthy, how will he react? Will he be the same guy? We may find out this season. The offensive line is terrific, but losing Eric Winston was a difficult blow. I have no doubt they can adequately replace him, but there will be a drop off. Owen Daniels is another fragile player that is a great threat over the middle when he is healthy.

Defense — (A-).      They were one of the best defenses in the league last season after having terrible defenses ever since the franchise began a decade ago. Personnel wise, there is not much fault you can find with them. Antonio Smith, JJ Watt and Shaun Cody are terrific, Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed and rookie Whitney Mercilus are a QBs worst nightmare, Brian Cushing is great inside, and Johnathan Joseph leads a good secondary. My questions for this unit are as follows- will Wade Phillips finally sustain success? And will complacency ever get into their heads? They need one more year before I give them an A grade, as I did with the Ravens, because the Ravens have been a dominant defense for years. The Texans have the ability to be that good, but will they?

Special teams — (B).      Shayne Graham and Donnie Jones are both journeymen. Trindon Holliday is an electrifying return man, but health must be a concern moving forward because he is so small.

 

2. Jacksonville Jaguars (8-8)

Offense — (C+).      This is a very conditional grade. I always thought Gabbert would improve this season because of the fact he had an offseason and got a competent offensive coaching staff. In the preseason, he has improved for sure, but still has a ways to go. Justin Blackmon will help get him there. Anything they can get out of Marcedes Lewis is a bonus. Even with all the talk about MJD, he will be there this season. He has nothing to gain from holding out. As long as the offensive line holds up, they could be a sneaky productive offense.

Defense — (B+).      They have a fundamentally solid unit, but the injury bug has always hit them hard. Particularly in the secondary. Mathis is over the hill and Cox needs to stay healthy. But they have a front 7 that can rival most in the league. Terrence Knighton is one of the best DTs in the league that nobody has ever heard of. But Tyson Alualu needs to start playing like the 10th overall pick he was. Upgrading the pass rush is also essential. Maybe Andre Branch will be the guy who can complement Jeremy Mincey.

Special teams — (A).      Josh Scobee is one of the best kickers in the game, very underrated. Bryan Anger was picked extremely high, but he can really boot it. Experience doesn’t mean a whole lot at the punter spot. Finding a return man is a must. I would think they could use MJD on returns a little bit now that their offense can throw more, and with Jennings and Toston taking carries it can free up some touches for MJD in that way. Otherwise Cecil Shorts and others will be duking it out for those spots.

 

3. Tennessee Titans (6-10)

Offense — (C-).      Jake Locker. A bad pick at #8 two years ago. He was never a very accurate QB at Washington, and he won’t be in the NFL. He does have intangibles and can run, which basically makes him much like Tim Tebow. Without Kenny Britt, who is constantly in legal trouble, he has a bunch of #2 guys like Nate Washington, Damian Williams, etc. to throw to. Jared Cook at tight end will have a break out year this year. He could be in the pro bowl. He’s a big target with freakish athletic ability. But the key is Chris Johnson. Can he get back to his 100+ ypg form? That will be the key to the season.

Defense — (B-).      With former first rounder Derrick Morgan and free agent addition Kamerion Wimbley, they could have a good pass rushing duo. Dave Ball is a good third end as well. But after that it gets a little shaky. Jurrell Casey and Sen’Derrick Marks are two young DTs that need to get stouter inside. Akeem Ayers had a decent rookie season, but he should be better in his second year. Colin McCarthy and Will Witherspoon are decent starters as well. In the secondary Michael Griffin and Alterraun Verner lead a decent group, along with Jordan Babineaux and Jason McCourty, who had a great rookie year but lost the form last season.

Special teams — (B-).      Rob Bironas is a great kicker, has been for years. Brett Kern struggled the last two years punting in Tennessee. He had his best numbers in Denver. Darius Reynaud is slated to handle the kickoff and punt returns, after missing last season with an injury.

 

4. Indianapolis Colts (4-12)

Offense — (C+).      I think Andrew Luck will gel with his new players fairly well, though it might take some time. Knowing Coby Fleener from college will certainly help him. Dwayne Allen is another playmaking tight end, and having Reggie Wayne stick around will help Luck immensely. Donald Brown showed flashes of brilliance last season, and he figures to be the permanent solution there. Putting a line in front of Luck and Brown will be the challenge.

Defense — (D+).      This could be a long year for the defense, which switches to the 3-4. Longtime starters Freeney and Mathis move to pass rushing OLBs. Cory Redding follows former coordinator to Indy to play for Chuck Pagano. Antonio Johnson and Fili Moala round out the D-line. Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner start inside, and they both are good players they will just need time to adjust, as will much of the unit. Vontae Davis will be an upgrade at corner, starting alongside Jerraud Powers, Antoine Bethea and another ex Raven, Tom Zbikowski.

Special teams — (A-).      Adam Vinateri is still there kicking FGs, and still great. Pat McAfee has blossomed into one of the better punters as well. LaVon Brazill is a rookie taking over the return spots, along with fellow rookie T.Y. Hilton. This will be a long rebuilding process, but after last year’s lost season, anything will be an improvement.

 

 

 

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Suggs Sidelined

3 05 2012

Just like that, one of the top defenses in the league received an unexpected blow to the gut, and the New Orleans Saints weren’t the culprit that delivered the hit.

Baltimore Ravens linebacker and reigning Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols Thursday that he partially tore his Achilles tendon while running a conditioning drill in Arizona.

Suggs plans on having surgery next week. Recovery time usually lasts four to six months while the average player returns to the field in 11 months.

Even though this type of injury is difficult to come back from, especially since Suggs turns 30 in October, the nine-year Raven is aiming to return by the middle of the season.

This is Suggs first major injury of his career as he has played in 149 of a possible 152 games.

There is an odd twist to this story, though, as sources had told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter that Suggs received this injury while playing pick-up basketball. However, this report has now been denied.

Schefter stands as one of the most dependable NFL journalists during the past nine years, so it’s odd that he would report this if he didn’t believe he had a reliable source. Hmm…

 

Replacing Suggs will not only be difficult because he has been a dependable pass rusher year after year (he is the Ravens’ career sack leader with 82 1/2), but more so because he sets up the Ravens commanding defense.

When Suggs is on the field, he constantly moves before and after the ball is snapped. His presence alone forces the opposing offense to adjust their play. With Suggs’ superior ability to get to the quarterback all on his own, the rest of the Ravens defense can lay off. This might have to chance without Suggs on the field, and the Ravens might be forced to blitz more often.

During an era when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ravens fight back and forth every single year for the AFC North title, this is a huge boost for the Steelers. Out of Suggs’ 30 sacks the past two seasons, including postseason play, 8.5 have come against his team’s biggest rival.

The Ravens will still have one of the best defenses in the league, but this injury isn’t helping Baltimore and Ray Lewis in their attempt to make it back to the Super Bowl.

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A Kick to Rule Them All

24 01 2012

In both the NFC and AFC Conference Championship games, a field goal attempt determined which teams needed to pack their bags for Indianapolis. One made. One missed. A Kyle Williams fumble on a punt return has also inundated the media world. Even though all of these situations provide an easy way to focus on just a few minutes of each game, it can’t be forgotten that NFL football lasts for 60 minutes. Here are some key plays and factors from each game that haven’t been given their rightful attention.

 

AFC Championship

  • Stephen Gostkowski made three field goals where Billy Cundiff couldn’t. He connected on 29, 35, and 24 yard field goal, missing none of his attempts. Even though these didn’t come in crunch time, without these 9 points, the game would have been in an entirely different place by the end of the game.
  • The Patriots defensive line came to play this past Sunday. That line and the rest of the Patriots’ defense held Ray Rice to 78 total yards – only 12 yards short of his season low. This forced Flacco to throw the ball much more than he is used to, translating to some poor throws in the fourth quarter.
  • Instead of wrapping the ball up tight, Lee Evans began to turn around after catching a potential touchdown pass from Flacco. As he began to rotate, the ball was easily knocked out of his hands by Sterling Moore, setting up the missed field goal from Cundiff two plays later. Why turn? I understand momentum plays a factor, but once you have clearly crossed the goal-line, gather yourself, and hold on to that football.
  • After Baltimore just recently had a playoff game without a single penalty, the Patriots decided to take a page from the Ravens’ book by playing an efficient football game. Other than an illegal contact penalty early on in the second quarter, the Patriots successfully had a penalty-free afternoon.
    • Even though the Ravens only had 6 penalties for a total of 33 yards, one of them had a major impact on the game. Facing a 2nd and 6 at the Baltimore 16, BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for one yard, potentially putting the Patriots in a tough third-down situation with the score still tied. However, Dannell Ellerbe had an obvious face mask, leading to an automatic first down. A touchdown was scored on the very next play.
  • No team led by more than a touchdown throughout the entire game. By the time the fourth quarter came around, only 4 points separated the two teams. This closeness helped Tom Brady, who finds ways to get the job done when the game is on the line. His fourth quarter touchdown drive made up the only points of the quarter.

 

NFC Championship

  • Alex Smith’s fourth quarter and overtime inefficiency made it difficult for the 49ers to establish any sort of offensive rhythm. Discounting the last play of the fourth quarter where the Patriots backed off to avoid the hail mary and gave up about a 20-yard play, here is Smith’s final five drives.

    C/ATT YDS
    4th 2/3 8
    0/1 0
    0/3 0
    1/1 3
    OT 1/2 11

    The 7-year Niner connected with receivers not named Vernon Davis one time the entire game. He has been playing wonderful football this year, but his play in crunch time of the AFC Championship reminded me of the Alex Smith I’ve seen from the previous six years.

  • *Eli Manning did it again, elevating his gameplay to another level during a playoff game. Manning completed 32 of 58 passes – franchise post-season records for both attempts and completions – for 316 yards and two touchdowns, proving his toughness. Just as basketball coaches tell their shooters to keep shooting no matter their percentage for a particular game, I felt as though Manning had a similar mentality. He kept slinging that ball around the field and didn’t care how many came up incomplete.
  • With all the attention on Vernon Davis, it can’t go unnoticed that ex-Raider Michael Crabtree all but disappeared in the biggest game of his life. One catch. Three yards. That is the makeup of Crabtree’s line for the NFC Championship game. It seemed on some plays that Crabtree didn’t even have a desire to have the ball thrown his way. When was the last time Crabtree could only muster up one catch for an entire football game? November 13th against the New York Giants.
  • The Giants effectively kept the 49ers and their offense off the field. Eli finished off plays by connecting on 17 third down conversions through the air. This also frustrates the opposing defense since they work so hard for two straight plays only to be beat on the third time. Ending up with 11 more minutes of possession and not turning the ball over, New York handled the ball very well and avoided any game-changing interceptions or fumbles.

 

*Even though Eli Manning has proven his greatness yet again this year, I think much more will need to be done on his part before he should be proclaimed better than his brother. If entire career’s are compared at this point in time, Peyton has to be the better quarterback.

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